How to be Charismatic when you're not even there

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stickfireA lot of the advice you get about how to be charismatic is about presence. It covers things you should do in real time to create an aura of magnetism. Henrik Edberg, for instance, tells us to focus on things that will make other people feel good: smile, be confident, be interested in them. Andrew Leigh's book, meanwhile, counsels us to put energy into making eye contact and to act more deliberately.

Now, a lot of this is good advice for improving our social skills. Confidence, warmth, positivity, fluency are all things that are welcome in social interactions, and are frequently in evidence in people with a charismatic reputation. But they are not the same as charisma. Not all socially confident people come over as charismatic; not all charismatic people are positive or charming.

I can hear your ‘yes, buts’ bubbling up already. You want to tell me about X conductor or Y civil rights leader who had the most remarkable presence. And I believe you. But I would also contend that that aura is not the source of their charismatic power; it is at most a by-product of it. Charisma does not inherently require presence because it can work even when you are absent.

I want to tell you about the most amazing bit of cultural technology that allows people to inspire many others when they have never even seen each other, and may never do so. They may not even inhabit the same country or the same era in history. Their followers may have no idea even what they look like, let alone whether they smiled or mirrored anyone else’s body language, but they nonetheless feel a a miraculous sense of fellowship with everyone else who shares their commitment.

You will have encountered this cultural technology before; but you may not have noticed its significance in understanding charisma.

I’m talking about literacy. The power of words. The most charismatic people in history have gathered the majority of their followers by proxy. More people have read the New Testament than ever met Jesus in his lifetime. (You know, it could be that more people have read the New Testament than were even alive at the time of the events it recounts. That would be an interesting statistic. If it’s not true yet, it will be soon.)

Charisma, that is, lies in the content, not the presentation. It is the message that is charismatic; not the medium. Oh, I’m not denying the importance of the set-up (as we learnt from Steve Jobs), but without the content it is empty rhetoric: fake, cheesy, untrustworthy.

So, what are the key elements of charismatic content? Sociologists of charisma have identified two interlinked elements that play a key role:

  • A Cause: Some abstract or moral good that will accrue to followers if they buy in to the message. The message is about more than any particular example it may contain, it is driven by a set of principles: justice, for instance, or mercy, equality, happiness. Something we all desire and deserve, but which is bigger than any one of us.
  • A Crisis: Some problem in the world that will be solved by adherence to the cause. It may be a deep malaise in the current status quo that needs changing (the radical position) or a threat to a cherished status quo (the conservative position). But it is the explicit identification of the crisis that creates the instability and urgency that will galvanise people to the cause.

In articulating the cause and the crisis, the charismatic leader positions themselves quite specifically. On one hand they present themselves as being in service to wider, more important currents. The cultural role is that of the prophet. That way they can become extravagant and vehement in expression without appearing unduly self-aggrandising. You’ve seen advice on charisma talking about vividness of vocabulary and fluency of expression – these are things that are facilitated by this positioning. And that focus on the bigger picture helps a lot with the lack of self-consciousness noted in face-to-face interactions.

On the other hand, they position themselves outside the mainstream. It is much easier to be charismatic from a counter-cultural position than from an establishment one. (Note: Max Weber contrasted charismatic authority with bureaucratic authority as a fundamentally different process.) They propound the need for the mainstream to change. Even if they are speaking from a position inside an institution, they put themselves in conflict with it by speaking out, and it’s not uncommon for those who take this position to resist assimilation into institutionalised authority structures.

Crisis and Cause are the two sticks you need to rub together to create the spark of charisma. And they are completely independent of medium: anything that carries meaning will do the trick. My next post on this subject will give specific examples of charismatic writing, but in the meantime your homework is to spot when you encounter a galvanising message, and identify the cause and the crisis at its heart.

Hi Liz,

your point regarding the readership of the New Testament intrigued me, so I did some googling.

According to this graph on Wikipedia, which I believe comes from an estimate of the US census bureau, the world population in 1 AD was approximately 200 million. Such numbers are really hard to estimate, and so to be taken with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, it is also remarkably hard to find out how many bibles are printed each year. One number I found is that Bible Societies alone printed 200 million bibles in 1977. Also, there is a Gallup poll according to which 59% of Americans read the bible "at least occasionally" in 2000, which makes for about 180 million readers. So it is very safe to say that the number of bible readers exceeds the number of potential eyewitnesses by a tremendous amount.

Not that this has anything to do with charisma. We are now returning you back to your scheduled programme about music. :)


Hi Alex,
That's a very cool bit of googling. Thank you for making us a little better informed and safer in our generalisations!


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